Maya Sandalow is a master of public health candidate studying health policy and food systems at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, with former experience as a food program lead at a primary care clinic and research associate at Georgetown University.
Is that carton of milk you forgot to finish before your spring vacation still safe to drink? The answer may not be as simple as the expiration date you are so used to checking. A new study found that date labels are often not telling you what you think and the consequences are much bigger than a dry bowl of cereal.
About 40% of all food available in the United States, and 30% globally, is never eaten. If all wasted food represented an individual country, it would follow China and the U.S. as the third greatest emitter of greenhouse gases.
While 38.4 million Americans suffer from low or very low food security each year, more than 52 million tons of food ends up in our landfills. It costs the United States $218 billion each year to produce, ship and dispose of this food that will never be eaten. That is the equivalent of 1.3% of our GDP. But a cost-effective food waste reduction strategy stares us in the face every time we inspect that milk carton — standardized date labels.
Individual attempts to reduce food waste are hampered by a nonsensical date labeling system. Date labels refer to those phrases on the back of your food products that range from "sell by" to "use by" to "best by" to "expires on." Despite what most consumers think, the federal government does not regulate date labels on food products, with the exception of infant formula.
Date label regulations are instead left up to the states, and few states have the same policy. Some require all foods to have date labels, some require them only for certain foods, and some require nothing at all, leaving it up to individual manufacturers. Walmart once found 47 different types of labels on just its private food products.
The majority of foods are perfectly fine to eat past the dates indicated on the label, and consumers would likely not detect the change in quality for some time. Yet most people interpret these dates as safety warnings. The recently published study on consumer attitudes towards date labels, conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, found that 84% of American consumers at least occasionally throw away food that is nearing or past the label date.
In 2017, the two largest grocery industry trade associations, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, initiated voluntary regulations to standardize date labels through the use of two phrases: "use by" to indicate safety and "best if used by" to indicate quality. While an important first step, these regulations are only voluntary and insufficient in conveying to customers what date labels truly mean.
The United States needs a standardized label system and associated consumer education campaign that clearly differentiate between when food quality starts to lessen and when food is truly not safe to eat anymore. In 2016, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, introduced the Food Date Labeling Act to enforce nationally standardized date labels and laws that govern food donations. The bill calls on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to differentiate between quality and safety dates and to allow stores to sell or donate a product after its quality date. It also requires USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to educate consumers on the new labels and the difference between quality and safety.
There may be an open policy window to reintroduce and pass food date labeling legislation. The 2018 Farm Bill will, for the first time, take steps to address food waste, indicating an increasing interest in addressing this problem. A bipartisan House Food Waste Caucus was launched last May by Pingree and Rep. David Young, R-Iowa.
During a time filled with partisan debate and tribal rivalries, here is something that both sides of the aisle already agree upon: perfectly good food should not be thrown out while millions of Americans go hungry. We should not be wasting billions of dollars and natural resources on food that will never be eaten. Standardized date label legislation is a crucial step in addressing the 40% of food that is wasted in the United States each year.